The cover of the Fontana edition, the most lovely of all the covers. They must still exist somewhere, probably with the Christie estate.
Agatha Christie - The ABC Murders (1936)
I did an event with the great-nephew of the great Dame AC herself, and he was a jolly pleasant and charming chap. There was talk of me doing a preface for a new edition of The ABC Murders which were at that point being reissued. I might have misread the seriousness of the request, but I went ahead and did my preface anyway, but the gig did not get beyond the mentioning stage. Never published, written in 2009. Here it is.
I was twelve at the time. My reading adventure had begun with Ladybird 1A and had danced through Babar, Enid Blyton and Just William. After pausing briefly at a few children's classics which were both welcomed and reviled in equal measure, I found myself reading my last Biggles, a pedigree that whilst poles apart from Christie in content, is not unlike in historical setting.
So there I was with a long rainy afternoon in front of me - or so I like to believe, in the honeyed vision of one's childhood - and, needing a new departure in my reading adventure, I chanced across my mother's complete set of Fontana paperback Christies, laid out tantalisingly on the shelf. I knew about them, of course, but always considered them 'adult' and a bit unapproachable, so it was with a mixture of trepidation and a rising sense of self-maturity that I chose the first on the shelf - forever the first on anyone's shelf - The ABC Murders.
I sat and read, and although some of the language was tricky, I persisted, and was soon stuck into the story. Pretty soon I found to my delight that not only was the story readable but that I, in my savant childish skill, could actually see who the murderer was! Really, it was so very easy that my estimation of adults in general plummeted still further - why, the murderer's initials I realised with an excited flush were ABC - surely proof of guilt if nothing else. To my delight I was proved utterly correct and felt a sense of achievement, but also disappointment - surely not all Christie books could be so transparent?
But then, something happened. With less than two dozen pages to go - the end in sight, indeed - an annoying Belgian with a fastidious manner starts to tell me that actually I am not correct. That something ... does not add up. That Mr Cust may not have done the murder even though he has confessed to it. Eh bien, my reading world is turned upside down, for I find myself wrong-footed in a most wonderful way, and I suddenly realise that Christie does indeed have a well-earned reputation, and my youthful eyes are opened just a little bit wider.
Naturally, I could not finish with The ABC Murders and carried on, devouring at least ten more during those holidays, and most of them at one time or another since then. I learned to love Miss Marple - the Gran I never had, I like to think - but really only tolerated M. Poirot with his perfect moustache, petulant manner, grey cells and patent leather shoes. But that was the point, I think. One was never meant to like him - only to be in awe of him. I grew to love the settings, the notion of an interwar period that lives forever in the Christie books like a fly in amber - the lost world of gentility, domestic service, large houses filled with secrets, incompetent police inspectors, exotic poisons and bodies turning up in the library.
But that is not wholly my story, for there is something else, something that will always bind me to Agatha Christie, and this is due to not to The ABC Murders but another Christie book - A Pocket Full of Rye, which I read in that first rain-induced block-sitting. As any Christie aficionado - or 'Aghead' as I hope to coin a phrase - will tell you, Pocket is about a series of murders that seem to fit into the nursery rhyme, Sing a song of Sixpence. That this was ingenious enough will come as no surprise to Agheads, as Christie often alluded to nursery rhymes in her novels - a fact that I had long noted. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, A Crooked Man, 5 Little Pigs, Ten Little Indians - Even that long-running play, now named after Hamlet's Mousetrap, was once titled Three Blind Mice.
As I was reading Pocket Full of Rye, I had the glorious - to me, at least - notion that perhaps these characters actually were from the nursery rhyme, and that Christie would pull off not only a remarkable twist in who committed the murder, but also a twist in the very genre of the book itself - from Crime to Fantasy by way of meta-fiction. How incredibly awesome would that be? Not, as it turned out, and I read with some sadness that the whole Nursery business had been cooked up by a disgruntled relative.
But the notion of genre-bending never quite left me, and years later - many years later, in fact - when I was older, not very much wiser and penning my own stories, the notion of investigating Nursery Rhymes as police procedurals came back, and my first novel was off the blocks. I wrote a sequel to this, then another series entirely, taking up the meta-fiction baton and running with it. All crime thrillers owe a debt of some sort to Christie, but my books owe just that little bit more. The ABC Murders set me on the trail, but Pocket Full of Rye pointed me toward a rich seam of ideas that I have yet to mine out, and perhaps never shall.
And so Christie lives on. Even now, well distanced from my last Christie reading, I look upon the series with a great deal of affection, with their crossword ingenuity and clockwork-like precision. Like one's first important movie, pet, house, poem or song, the series belongs in a special, exulted position that only first readings and first impressions can create - I may have read better books since then, but they will fade. Miss Marple and Poirot, like Babar, Biggles and Henry Pooter, are there for my duration.
Jasper Fforde, October 2009